In one of the most widely watched political races of the year, Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin has made right-wing parental anxiety a major focal point of his campaign. He has eagerly whipped up fears of local school boards imposing a liberal cultural agenda on innocent minds by sounding the alarms over the specter of “critical race theory.” And as the race enters its final stretch, he’s spotlighting a particularly bizarre instance of fear-mongering that contradicts standard right-wing talking points about progressive “cancel culture.”
Was “Beloved” targeted in part because of the kind of story it was telling about America?
In a political campaign ad Youngkin released Monday, a white woman named Laura Murphy, described in the ad only as a mother from Fairfax County, discusses her horror at discovering that her son’s reading material included “some of the most explicit material you can imagine.” She describes her anger that then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe — the Democrat who is also Youngkin’s opponent today — vetoed a piece of legislation in 2016 that would have allowed parents to block their children from reading books in school that contain sexually explicit material.
What she doesn’t mention in the ad is that she had campaigned specifically to ban Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” from her son’s curriculum after complaining that the book apparently gave him night terrors.
In other words, one of Youngkin’s final pitches to Virginia Republicans seems to be propping up some of the very ideas that conservatives allege to find so repellant about liberals today: hypersensitivity and cancel culture.
Morrison’s novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, tells the story of a Black woman during the Civil War era who kills her own daughter to spare her from slavery. The book, which offers bracing meditations on the dehumanizing effects of slavery, includes scenes of bestiality and gang rape.
In 2013 Murphy lobbied the Fairfax County School Board, and eventually the Virginia state Legislature, to have the book removed from county classrooms after it gave her son nightmares after he tried reading it as a senior in high school. “To me, mature references means slavery or the Holocaust,” Murphy told The Washington Post at the time. “I’m not thinking my kid is going to be reading a book with bestiality.”
She sought to ban the book "until new policies are adopted for books assigned for class that might have objectionable material," according to the Post.
“It was disgusting and gross,” her son told the Post at the time. “It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.” (Her son now works as a general counsel for the Republican Party.)
Murphy’s lobbying campaign almost succeeded: While the school board declined to take up her challenge, Republican state lawmakers eventually passed legislation in 2016 that would have required K-12 teachers to notify parents about sexually explicit materials and give them the option to have their children opt out of the assignment and receive an alternative one. But McAuliffe vetoed that bill, and another similar one.
The question of when students should be exposed to material that can cause them distress is one of ongoing debate in our society. But what’s interesting is that in recent years Republicans have consistently painted liberal discussion of policies like curriculum “trigger warnings” as signs that liberals are snowflakes who can’t stand to be challenged or stomach the harsh realities of the world.
In this instance Murphy led a multiyear effort to make sure people like her son — old enough to have received sexual education, and presumably considerably exposed to the sex and violence that abounds in pop culture — didn’t have to endure descriptions of sex that make him uncomfortable. Moreover, she took steps to to try to prevent anyone else from possibly having that experience based on her idiosyncratic views.
As The New Republic's Alex Shephard wrote in his analysis of the Murphy ad, Morrison's discussion of sex in her novel has clear pedagogical value:
Sexual abuse is central to Beloved’s thematic power and its investigation of trauma and American history; in the ad, Murphy bizarrely acts as if it’s titillating, rather than horrific. That any Virginia lawmakers may have ever been red in the face at encountering Morrison’s prose should be disqualifying for public office—if not adulthood—but as far as I can tell, basic literacy is unfortunately not a requirement to sit in either of Virginia’s legislative bodies.
One has to ask: Was “Beloved” targeted in part because of the kind of story it was telling about America? That is, of course, much of what animates the constant fear-mongering about critical race theory, a realm of study about institutionalized racism that Youngkin has made a centerpiece of his campaign and repeatedly vowed to end as governor — even though it’s not being taught in Virginia’s schools.
The ongoing agenda to stoke the fears of conservative parents doesn’t reflect consistency in principle or a substantial reckoning with complicated debates. Instead, it shows that the GOP is desperate to manufacture new culture wars to excite members of a party that has advanced few serious thoughts about how to improve the world in recent years.
Again, it’s worth examining exactly what Murphy and Youngkin are objecting to. Is it truly the harm of being exposed to sexually explicit content, or is it that children are being prompted to reflect on the brutal history of how America was built?